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Jean-Pierre Melville: Visions of the Underworld

Part One (August)

“I move from realism to fantasy without the spectator ever realising” - Jean-Pierre Melville

Best known for his later crime classics, Melville was actually a filmmaker of considerable versatility and artistic ambition. Renaming himself after his favourite novelist Herman Melville, Jean-Pierre Grumbach was both a cinephile and an Americanophile – which partly explains the laconic, noir-ish mood of his magisterial, highly influential variations on the gangster film. Yet he was also a profoundly personal and very ‘European’ artist, with an abiding interest in loyalty and betrayal, courage and camaraderie, honour and dignity: themes found not only in his tense explorations of underworld ethics, but in his lesser-known earlier studies of troubled, even perverse relationships. From his remarkable first feature onwards, Melville’s movies are meticulously stylised, sometimes pared back and tending towards mythic abstraction, but always extremely expressive in their psychological precision. Above all, he was proudly independent – making him an acknowledged progenitor (and hero) of the French New Wave – and a true original.


Part Two (September)

“[Le Samouraï] is masterful in its control of acting and visual style” - Roger Ebert

With the sole exception of L’Armée des ombres (which meant a great deal to Melville, who was proud of his years in the Resistance), from Le Doulos onwards the writer-director worked exclusively in the crime genre. Mood and visual style were consistently influenced (albeit in a knowing, slightly distanced way) by American noir; thematically, the films returned repeatedly to questions of trust, codes of courage and honour, shame and guilt – in short, the correct way to live... and die. Within these formal and narrative constraints Melville composed a remarkably diverse and fruitful series of variations, so while Le Deuxième Souffle can seem almost documentary-like in its detail, Le Samouraï and Un Flic feel mythic, almost abstract. He was undoubtedly one of the greats.

By Geoff Andrew, season curator



showing a huge selection of classic and contemporary films each year, BFI Southbank screens both new and re-releases, film seasons and director and actor retrospectives.

You can also access over 1,000 hours of films for free in the BFI Mediatheque and peruse a world-renowned library collection. 

Whereis it

BFI Southbank

Belvedere Road, South Bank London SE1 8XT